Why are wetlands important?

Canoeing on Myall Lakes. Photo & copyright: Jeremy Epstein

Canoeing on Myall Lakes. Photo & copyright: Jeremy Epstein

Wetlands provide significant economic, social and cultural benefits. They are important for primary products such as pastures, timber and fish and support recreational and tourist activities. Wetlands also help reduce the impacts from storm damage and flooding, maintain good water quality in rivers, recharge groundwater, store carbon, help stabilise climatic conditions and control pests. They are also important sites for biodiversity.

Agriculture, forestry and tourism

Wetlands support agricultural activities by providing a source of water for irrigation and livestock and for domestic consumption. Pastures on inland floodplain wetlands are more productive than those in adjacent areas.

Wetlands also support sustainable forestry: for example, some river red gum forests have been harvested for over 150 years. Wetlands support nursery areas for juveniles of commercially valuable fish species.

Many coastal and inland wetlands are popular locations for tourism and recreational activities such as swimming, boating, fishing, camping and birdwatching.

Wetland on private land, Macquarie Marshes. Photo: B Leahy, OEH

Wetland on private land, Macquarie Marshes. Photo: B Leahy, OEH

Water quality, flooding and pests

Wetlands improve water quality by trapping sediments, filtering out pollutants and absorbing nutrients that would otherwise result in poor water quality for downstream users. They may also be linked to groundwater resources.

Wetlands reduce the risk of flooding by slowing down the movement of floodwaters along rivers and releasing water over time. River systems with intact wetlands in their headwaters have more consistent flows than rivers where the catchment and its wetlands have been largely cleared. Wetlands, such as hanging swamps in the Blue Mountains, are important for providing fresh water to large urban areas such as Sydney, especially in times of low rainfall.

Wetlands provide habitat for birds, which can play an important role in helping to control pests on nearby farms. Flocks of white ibis (Threskiornis molucca) and straw-necked ibis (Threskiornis spinicollis) frequently forage for grasshoppers and other leaf-eating insects in crops such as lucerne. As each bird can consume up to 25% of its body weight in grasshoppers in one day, they are often called 'farmer's friends'. This means that there is less need for costly and polluting chemical spraying to control insect pests.

Carbon sequestration

Wetlands cover about 9% of the earth’s surface and are estimated to contain around 35% of global terrestrial carbon. Wetlands act as sinks for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, especially if their vegetation is protected and their natural processes are maintained.

Coastal wetlands, such as saltmarsh and mangroves, are likely to have the highest rates of greenhouse gas sequestration, and the drainage of melaleuca and mangrove forest wetlands in Australia would turn them from carbon sinks into carbon sources. Saltmarsh can bury an average 1.51 tonnes of organic carbon per hectare per year and mangroves an average 1.39 tonnes. These rates are several times higher than the rate of carbon burial calculated for the Amazonian forests, an important global carbon sink. This highlights the importance of protecting intact wetlands in helping to limit the impacts of climate change.

Recording scarred tree details, Tupra Station, Lower Lachlan wetlands, Photo: Roland Williams, OEH

Recording scarred tree details,
Tupra Station, Lower Lachlan wetlands.
Photo: Roland Williams/OEH

Aboriginal cultural significance

Wetlands are of high cultural significance to Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people in NSW recognise the cultural values of biodiversity and the environment, and wetlands provide a connection to Country for Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal cultural values of wetlands are related to both the long history of Aboriginal interaction with wetlands and the interests and aspirations of contemporary Aboriginal communities that have a custodial relationship with those areas. Aboriginal people are interested in identifying and protecting the cultural values of wetlands by:

  • protecting Country through cultural flows of environmental water and managing Aboriginal cultural heritage sites
  • gaining access to Country for cultural activities
  • participating in managing wetlands.

The Werai Forests are an example of the contemporary significance of wetlands to Aboriginal people. They are being managed by the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) cooperatively with the Wemba Wemba and Barapa Barapa Aboriginal Nations while negotiations are conducted for eventual transfer of the land to the Aboriginal Nations. If the Aboriginal Nations agree, the lands are intended to be managed as an Indigenous Protected Area under Aboriginal ownership.

Historical significance

Wetlands have historical and social significance because of their contribution to the development of inland regions. Before the construction of railways and roads, wetlands along rivers such as the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Darling were used as transport routes for delivering agricultural products such as wool to markets. River red gums in the Murray River’s Barmah and Millewa forests have been harvested since the early 1800s, providing timber for buildings, bridges and railway sleepers, and fuel for paddle steamers in earlier times. Many towns along the Murray now celebrate their river and wetland heritage, and provide facilities for tourism and recreation.

Science and education

Wetlands provide important locations for scientific research and play an important role in educating people about biodiversity and natural processes in NSW. OEH and educational institutions conduct research into the ecological response of river flows, flooding and environmental watering of wetlands, and the response of plants and animals such as colonial nesting waterbirds, to environmental watering.

Wetlands are used by schools, universities and the public to learn about the ecological importance of wetlands and the other benefits and services they provide to the community. Wetland education centres are located in the lower Hunter near Newcastle, Bicentennial Park in Sydney, the Wonga Wetlands on the Murray River in Albury, and on Narrabeen Lakes in Sydney.

Plants and animals

NSW wetlands are home to many special plants, birds, fish and frogs. Wetlands provide essential habitat for rare or important species such as the endangered southern bell frog and freckled duck, and the Murray cod. They are an important stopover for many migratory birds and feature one of Australia’s most iconic trees, the river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis).

Many species rely on the regular flooding cycles of wetlands (such as those on inland floodplains) to reproduce. Some plants and animals live only in particular types of wetlands, for example, in mangroves, saltmarshes, hanging swamps or sphagnum bogs.

More information

Conservation Assessment of Wetlands in the Clarence Lowlands IBRA Subregion
This report provides findings from an assessment of the conservation values and threats to 19 wetland complexes (clusters) in the lower Clarence valley.

Page last updated: 18 March 2013